Fathers think alike, care to listen

Harish Barthwal

The first-ever letter I received from my methodical father was a sheer advisory. That was in 1980, when I left my parents and others in Delhi to join a new job in Bhopal. Landline phones were few and far between, and mobile phones we had just heard of. Exchange of letters was the prime modality of communication in that era.

As part of his thrifty lifestyle, my father usually chose a postcard, or at most an inland letter, rather than the costlier sealable postal envelope. The nicely worded advisory had about a dozen points in impressive handwriting, an additional attribute of his grand personality. Well known for his love of language and knack for discretely conveying his categorical and positive views, his letters ever made the recipient give them a second or subsequent readings.

At first glance, the content stunned me, as it bore a striking resemblance to what Polonius, a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, impresses upon his son Laertes, leaving home for Paris. Just two years ago, I had read the play in my degree course. The advisory read: in social dealing, once financial transactions are set in, friendly relations shall sour, for sure (the Bard wrote, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend’. Second advice: be judicious in your words, listen more, but act after due consideration (compare with: ‘Give every man thine ear but few thy tongue’; ‘Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment’). The purpose of clothing, my father wrote, was to protect and cover the body from inclement weather, and not to show off; it should be sober (‘Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy/ But not expressed in fancy; rich but not gaudy’.

An additional prescription offered to me that Polonius probably missed, though he must have it in mind, was to keep focus on how those earning less than you lead life well, and never emulate the ways of the more affluent ones. Imitation or rivalry can stretch one unnecessarily, leading to tension and loss of mental peace, he wrote.

My father had not read Hamlet in his graduation, yet fathers think alike, and share similar concerns of security and wellness about their offspring, something the latter do not fully understand, if at all they do. Ironically, by the time clarity emerges, it is generally too late. When performing shradh rituals for my father this year, I was determined to make amends for the lapse in not complying with his precepts — before history would repeat itself with my son.

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